NASA's Axel rover can rappel down cliffs

  • Chicago (IL) - A prototype planet rover robot being developed by NASA and Caltech could someday lend more research data about other planets in our solar system to scientists. It might also be able to help in search-and-rescue operations back here on Earth.

    Axel, a product of engineering from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and students at the California Institute of Technology, is designed to explore terrains not previously explorable, said Issa A.D. Nesnas, of JPL's robotics and mobility section. "Also, because Axel is relatively low-mass, a mission may carry a number of Axel rovers. That would give us the opportunity to be more aggressive with the terrain we would explore, while keeping the overall risk manageable."

    Axel has a simple design which can make use of different wheel types to help it better get around tough and rocky terrain. It can operate in both upside down and right side up orientations, and it uses only three motors: one to control each of its two wheels and a third to control a lever. This lever in turn controls a scoop used to gather lunar or other planetary material for scientists to study.

    What is perhaps even more interesting is that Axel also sports a tether NASA says can unreel, allowing it to descend from a larger lander, rover or anchor point. In this scenario, it is envisioned the rover might be able to rappel off cliffs so it could explore deep down into even more remote areas.

    "Collaboration with Caltech has been key to the success of this project," Nesnas said. "The students contributed significantly to the design of the tethered Axel. Their creative work enabled us to analyze, design and build new wheels, sampling tools and software. The students also played a key role in field-testing this robot. Without them, we would not have been able to accomplish such goals, given our limited resources."